Food & Drinks

A Brief History of How LA Became America’s Spicy Food Capital

Los Angeles is a paradise of flavor. Thanks to its car-centric culture, the city has reached into the hills and cleaved independent communities in its endless valleys. The region’s culinary overtones are decidedly Mexican, from street tacos to Alta California cuisine, made all the richer thanks to charred chiles and smoke and heat from the grill. This is the birthplace of salsa empires, with a dense culinary history that’s thicker than the tourist crowds on Olvera Street.

But to only include Mexican flavors in any conversation about LA’s history with heat would do a disservice to too many other communities, from the San Gabriel Valley to South LA to Thai Town. Many of the moments that have made LA the cross-cultural capital of American spice have roots in larger issues and systems, including post-World War II Black migration from the South and changing national immigration laws in the 1960s. Those timeline points, combined with the work of entrepreneurs like David Tran of Huy Fong Foods and the inimitable writer Jonathan Gold, have kept LA well stocked in spice for generations, and likely will for many more to come.

Read on for a list of 11 important moments in the history of Los Angeles heat.


Ortega family

The Ortega family is legendary in Southern California, with Emilio Carlos Ortega having emerged from the adobe home of his youth in Ventura to create the Ortega Chili Company, still one of the most prominent sellers of chiles and spicy sauces in America to this day. Emilio’s mother, Maria Conception Jacinta Dominguez Ortega, moved the family’s 13 children into their still-standing adobe home after their marriage in 1836, and it was there that Emilio would go on to make some of his earliest salsas.

He relocated to New Mexico for a number of years beginning in 1890, bringing back mild young green chiles several years later to use as the foundation for his company. The newly minted Anaheim, named after the Southern California city, actually has its roots in those early Ventura years, and today the pepper is still popularly grown in the region. “The story of a major company specializing in Mexican food begins here,” says author Gustavo Arellano in his book Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America.


Tamales Calientes

The oldest mentions of “spicy food” in the Los Angeles Times archives come from an 1894 story about tamale vendors around town, titled “Tamales Calientes: Push-cart Purveyors Who Flourish at Night.” The article applauds several vendors for their “spicy fare,” including “an old game-legged fellow” from the late 1870s — “when Los Angeles was a dusty old adobe pueblo of some 7,000 or 8,000 inhabitants” — who sold late-night chicken tamales. “He always managed to unload his bucketful of red-hot peppery ware long before 2 in the morning,” the article reads. In the nearly two decades since, the author writes, the amount of “spicy food” available on the street “has greatly increased” across the city (and up to Burbank, even), but remains mostly focused along Main Street, near the bars there.

Tamales, of course, have been a staple dish for thousands of years across Mesoamerica, though their prominence has come in waves in America. Tamales are in the DNA of Los Angeles — which is historically Mexican to begin with — and only became more ingrained as westward travelers from places like Texas (home to San Antonio’s Tex-Mex chili queens) sought them out in the mid-1800s.


El Pato

Walker Foods, maker of iconic LA salsa El Pato, has been in business since 1904. At least that’s the “earliest reference” anyone has on paper, says current CEO Robert Walker, about the founding of the company that would go on to define generations of homemade meals across Southern California and beyond. Fans will know El Pato for its colorful cans of salsas and sauces, perfect for pouring over tamales or dipping tortillas in for enchiladas, among other uses.

A Brief History of How LA Became America’s Spicy Food Capital

The 115-year-old, still family-owned company was among the first to mass-produce salsa in America, and now supplies distilled white vinegars to McDonald’s and mustards and peppers to In-N-Out. The company’s bread and butter remains the Mexican hot-style tomato sauce, made with cascabel and other peppers, and sold in volume to wholesale accounts and grocery stores. The hand-painted duck logo is beyond famous, though few know the company still produces all its sauces right here in Los Angeles.


Olvera St.

Olvera Street, just across from Union Station in the heart of the original Reina de los Ángeles de Porciúncula (aka Los Angeles), is both historically relevant and a kind of whitewashed facade. The alleyway (formerly named Wine Street) has roots as one of the original thoroughfares for the city and as a place for nonwhite communities to congregate, though they still faced harassment and, in 1871, a horrific massacre. By the 1920s the alleyway had fallen into disrepair, before being resurrected by Christine Sterling as an ode to a bygone Californio way of life, complete with open-air restaurants and merchants, and conveniently leaving out the area’s history of Latinx and Chinese expulsion and fear.

A Brief History of How LA Became America’s Spicy Food Capital

The physical promenade was built between 1929 and 1930 with donated funds from several prominent LA businesspeople and in part with forced prison labor. Today, it is one of the most visited tourist destinations in the sprawling city, and is home to iconic spots like Cielito Lindo, the taquito stall that dates to 1934. While Southern California has always had its roots in Mexican flavors and history, it is Olvera Street that helped (for better and for worse) to coalesce that history in one short, tourism-friendly package that exists to this day.


Second Great Migration

A Brief History of How LA Became America’s Spicy Food Capital

The story of heat and spice in Los Angeles is, in part, the story of Black opportunity. The Second Great Migration, the northern and western expansion of Southern Black families seeking a better way of life, began during World War II as huge numbers of working-age Black men and women left Texas, Georgia, and Louisiana (among other states) behind for the promise of employment in shipbuilding and other wartime efforts. Defense contracts in Southern California alone totaled $11 billion at the time, leading the state percentage of the total Black population to more than double from 1940 to 1950.

Despite fierce, institutionalized racism in banking and homeownership, Black families continued to populate around Los Angeles County, growing a robust collection of Southern, soul food, and barbecue restaurants in the process. Spices and hot sauces came along for the ride, from the vinegar-based styles common to Louisiana to spicy tomato-based barbecue sauces of Texas, with plenty of Caribbean and Carolinas influence. Hot sauce remains an indelible part of any soul food dining experience in Los Angeles, and today those flavors permeate restaurants and neighborhoods of all kinds, all across the vast county of 10 million people.


Immigration and Nationality Act

Perhaps no single act has had a greater contribution to the history of spice in Los Angeles than the signing of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 by then-president Lyndon B. Johnson. Also known as the Hart-Celler Act, the law aimed to do away with long-held discriminatory immigration policies that disfavored groups from Asia, Southern Europe, and elsewhere, allowing thousands of families from Thailand, China, Vietnam, and beyond to flock to Los Angeles and settle.

Because the new process favored highly skilled workers first, many immigrant families either came with money made back home or found success in the American economy, becoming homeowners and community leaders in quick succession. For example: In 1960, the suburban, single-family-home San Gabriel Valley city of Monterey Park was only 3 percent Asian, largely Japanese. By 1990, the city was overwhelmingly Asian, in part because of a massive influx of Chinese immigrants, a story repeated in over a dozen cities nearby.

Since 1965, Asian communities along the entire West Coast have exploded in population, adding to already robust populations in areas like Thai Town, Koreatown, and Cambodia Town in Long Beach. Artesia has become a dense enclave of more recent Indian immigrants, while the San Gabriel Valley continues to draw in Taiwanese and mainland Chinese at a robust clip. Each community has its own long history with spices and heat, making Southern California the most culturally (and culinarily) dense area in America.


Sriracha

Families across the country (and indeed the world) know the name Sriracha. It’s become a ubiquitous hot sauce, befitting everything from tacos to ramen to Vietnamese food and beyond, and easily recognizable in its iconic squirt bottle with green nozzle. Fewer people know the name Huy Fong Foods (or founder David Tran), or that Sriracha — named after Sri Racha in Thailand — has been made just east of Los Angeles since 1980. Tran himself used to spoon-fill glass bottles of his signature sauce to sell to restaurants around Chinatown, and in the decades since has grown the brand to international-icon status. Despite some legal woes with his processing facilities in the San Gabriel Valley, Tran has always based Huy Fong Foods in Southern California, even relying on farms from nearby Ventura County to supply the red jalapeno chile peppers for his sauce.


Filipino World War II Veterans Naturalization Act

While large numbers of Filipinos were already living in greater Los Angeles by 1990, it was the Filipino World War II Veterans Naturalization Act of 1989 (signed into law the next year) that offered something special to the community: recognition for fighting alongside American soldiers in World War II, and an immediate pathway to citizenship for tens of thousands of Filipino families. The result was a boom in California’s already bustling Filipino population, which numbered half a million in 1980 but exploded post-1990, first to 1.4 million by the year 2000, then to well north of 2 million by 2018. The jump in demographics helped to create (and recognize existing) Filipino communities all over Southern California, with the designation of the Historic Filipinotown neighborhood coming in 2002. In 2020, Los Angeles County has the largest Asian population size anywhere in the United States, and Filipinos are the largest Asian group in the entire state.

To some, Filipino food may not reach the spicy heights of, say, certain regional Thai dishes, but that’s okay. The cuisine has a regionally specific chile all its own: the siling labuyo, which resembles Thai pepper but carries a habanero-level heat used for cutting through rich dishes. Peppers can be found as ingredients in dishes or condiments, and the leaves are traditionally used for cooking in the homey Filipino soup tinola.


Jitlada

For many, Thai food is synonymous with spice. And while the cuisine, with its many regional affectations, encompasses an entire spectrum of options, restaurants like Jitlada do make the case for the glory of so-called “Thai spicy.” This temple to heat, found under a bright yellow sign on Sunset Boulevard, is almost shorthand for spicy food in Los Angeles. Fans (many of them celebrities, like Simpsons creator Matt Groening) flock to the restaurant to have their taste buds delightfully singed by any one of the restaurant’s hundreds (literally) of dishes.

In the nearly 15 years since opening, brother-and-sister duo Tui Sungkamee (who died in 2017 at 66) and Jazz Singsanong have helped to welcome in generation after generation of native Angelenos, tourists, and recent transplants and give them a taste of Thai Town turned all the way up. Jitlada has won countless awards for its food; earned rave reviews from Jonathan Gold, Bon Appétit, and the Michelin Guide; and continues to lead the conversation about spicy food and its many iterations in greater Los Angeles.


Chengdu Taste

A Brief History of How LA Became America’s Spicy Food Capital

For decades, the San Gabriel Valley has been a hotbed of culinary creativity. This is the birthplace of In-N-Out, the home to countless drive-thrus, Taiwanese breakfast spots, boba shops, and giant dim sum halls. But it was Jonathan Gold’s 2013 review of an already-busy Sichuan restaurant, Chengdu Taste, that helped to herald in a regionwide understanding of the deliciously numbing moment the SGV was having. Thanks to some clever advertising on social media site Weibo, Chengdu Taste owner Tony Xu had already garnered a robust following within LA’s massive Chinese community, only to see the restaurant overwhelmed with waiting hordes of eager customers thanks to the kingmaker Gold.

Soon, Westsiders, South Bay denizens, and everyone else were lining up to score the spicy tan tan noodles, the boiled sliced fish in hot sauce, and, of course, the toothpick lamb. Competitors like Sichuan Impression, Chengdu Impression, and countless others quickly opened in the greater SGV, further ushering in an arms race of peppercorn heat that permeated the area for half a decade. Xu himself grew his Chengdu Taste empire to multiple locations across the San Gabriel Valley, Las Vegas, and into more fast-casual offshoot Mian, with hopes of finding an audience for his particular brand of flavor and spice. So far, it’s working.


Howlin’ Ray’s

A Brief History of How LA Became America’s Spicy Food Capital

These days in LA, it’s all about hot fried chicken. Usually, the spicy bird format is drilled down into one kind of category — Nashville style — though in reality, few places truly deliver on the process and historical impact of that regionally beloved dish. Howlin’ Ray’s, a former food truck turned Chinatown mega-hit, is one such spot, the kind of place that has launched dozens, if not hundreds, of imitators around Southern California and the world. In pre-pandemic times, line-waiting times for the restaurant’s hot chicken sandwiches, fries, and off-menu items would run into the hours, while attempts to add Howlin’ to delivery platforms routinely broke those apps entirely.

Since the launch of Howlin’ Ray’s the restaurant in 2016, the hot chicken scene competition has been fierce. Among the biggest names to emerge from the fray is Dave’s Hot Chicken, run by a young and hungry group of Armenian entrepreneurs, first out of a parking lot and now with franchise deals all over the country. Today, carwash stands, knockoff storefronts with kitschy names, and big-name chefs all clamor to join the hot chicken trend, thanks in large part to Howlin’ Ray’s. But for a taste of true Nashville style with a direct family lineage, best to get to Hotville Chicken in Crenshaw, run by Kim Prince herself.


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